Virginia's 2013 governor's race figures to be one of the most expensive in state history, featuring front-runners who have experience raising big money in a state that sets no limits on political donations to candidates.
The Old Dominion is one of just four states that does not restrict campaign contributions, and some of the more strict states — including Maryland and Florida — are considering proposals to raise their limits, which some critics say are outdated and frequently avoided through loopholes.
It remains to be seen whether such proposals will gain much traction, as state lawmakers are often reluctant to change campaign-finance laws, out of concerns that it could upset the status quo or do more harm than good.
"Anytime you change the equation of how money can be raised or spent, politicians can be very, very cautious," said David Poole, executive director of the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of campaign contributions and spending in the state. "They want to make sure that their side's not going to come out on the losing end."
While federal law prohibits individuals from giving more than $2,500 to any national candidate during an election cycle, state campaign-finance laws vary widely in their restrictions.
Virginia, Missouri, Oregon and Utah allow state-level candidates to rake in unlimited donations from individuals, political parties, political action committees, corporations and unions. Seven other states have no limits on individuals, parties and PACs, but do regulate corporate and union giving.
On the other end of the spectrum, Alaska, Florida and Massachusetts prohibit voters from giving any more than $500 to a single candidate and place further restrictions on parties, PACs and private groups.
Colorado limits individuals to just $550 for any gubernatorial hopeful and $200 for legislative candidates, and prohibits corporations and unions entirely from donating to candidates.
The nationwide average limit on contributions to a single candidate is about $8,500 in governor's races and $4,000 for legislative candidates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Without contribution limits, candidates in Virginia's 2009 gubernatorial race spent more than $52 million, according to VPAP, including $8.3 million by Terry McAuliffe who lost in a three-way Democratic primary, but figures to be the party's standard-bearer next year.
The 2013 front-runner on the GOP side is Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, who was elected in 2009 after spending $2.9 million.
Some critics say Virginia's campaign-finance laws allow wealthy donors to buy political influence, but proponents argue that the lack of limits has worked well when combined with the state's tough disclosure laws.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's successful 2009 run was buoyed in part by $175,000 in contributions from Richard Gilliam, a wealthy GOP donor and owner of a coal-mining company in Abingdon, Va. Mr. Gilliam more recently has poured $135,000 into Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's currently suspended 2013 run for governor.
Mr. McDonnell defeated state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds in the general election, despite Mr. Deeds receiving a total of $225,000 from real estate investor Edward Rice.
Chris LaCivita, a top adviser for Mr. Cuccinelli's 2013 campaign, pointed out that state law requires candidates within 72 hours to report any contribution of more than $10,000 and added that he thinks a lack of limits gives the public more freedom to participate in democracy.
"It's a respect to the First Amendment," he said. "The bottom line is that in Virginia, tough disclosure with open limits has worked here. In our view, what really defines democracy is allowing everyone equal access."
Other states are trying to find a happy medium, such as Maryland, which is expected to consider legislation next year that would raise the state's current contribution limits of $4,000 for any candidate and $10,000 total during an election cycle to as much as $7,000 and $25,000, respectively.
Maryland state Sen. Bill Ferguson, Baltimore Democrat, said that while relatively low limits are designed to stamp out corruption and prevent the wealthy from buying influence, he said many donors find legal and illegal ways around them.
In recent years, rich donors have moved increasingly toward the legal practice of giving freely to PACs and independent expenditure groups and, in some cases, toward the illegal practice of getting straw donors to donate on their behalf.
Mr. Ferguson, a member of the commission that recommended increasing the limits this month, said he supports increases that adjust for inflation, but said the main issue at play is transparency and making sure that campaign funds can be easily tracked.
"You don't want a small number of people bankrolling candidates and influencing them, but you also don't want to have a nontransparent system," he said. "If those are sidelines in the debate, we have to find a place in the middle.
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